Talk to Others, Transform Yourself: Interfaith Dialogue Combats Ignorance

y Tim Brauhn, Communications Manager.

This opinion originally appeared at the Interfaith Youth Core blog.

I took Interfaith Youth Core up on their challenge for Better Together Day on April 14th and reached out to others of faith or philosophical tradition to have a conversation about what they believe and what values inspire them to do good in the world. I did this because I believe that when it comes to religion, we’re too often told that our differences define us. I’m for fixing that. Join me.

I’m a Catholic. For the past nearly-decade, in my work as an interfaith leader and through my job at Islamic Networks Group, I’ve been lucky to meet a huge variety of non-Catholics. I’m talking denominations and sects and sub-sects and sub-sub-sects of faiths from all around the world, and even a few who believe that they are from another planet. Many of these interactions have been casual, unremarkable even, but on occasion, I’ve found myself challenging my own stereotypes and misperceptions about other faiths.

A long time ago, I thought that Muslims were dangerous (usually Arab) villains. Movies, television, and my rural milieu all seemed to suggest that they were a violent “other” to be feared. After a few visits to my local mosque, hundreds of handshakes, and a great many gigantic meals, I’ve found that Muslims are indeed dangerous, but only to my waistline. Otherwise, they are just like me in most ways. My contact with them has prompted theological soul-searching more than once, and my old prejudices have disappeared in the face of generosity, compassion, and laughter.

It’s intuitive that interacting with unfamiliar people can head off stereotypes and contribute to better understanding between disparate groups, but in our religiously turbulent landscape, it bears repeating.

An example: To my knowledge, I’ve never met anyone from Georgia — the Caucasus one, not the American South one — so my understanding of what Georgians are like is a bit lacking. I know a little bit about the country’s history, I find their script fascinating, and I have enjoyed at least two separate Georgian wines. Academically and alcoholically, I am not unfamiliar.

Fortunately, I am not aware of Georgian stereotypes, either. If a friend said that I was “…as quick as a Tbilisi dessert,” I would check them for signs of stroke. Perhaps I’m lucky; I’m sure that there are many people like me, un-Georgianed, who have a very low opinion of the Caucasians. I’m looking at you, Russia. But imagine that I sit down and share a meal with a Georgian, or work with one (or more) of them to clean up a local park. As long as we don’t spend the time bickering about what fork/rake to use, I’d guess that by the end of the interaction, I’d have a generally positive impression of Georgians. They will be personalized in my mind as normal, nice humans. If, during that conversation, I find out that Georgians don’t even eat dessert, I’ll know that my friend was essentially praising my speed, and I’ll be enriched by the knowledge.*

Personal experience with people outside our immediate sphere of knowledge can be transformative. In psychological terms, it’s called the “contact hypothesis,”or “intergroup contact theory.”The US Army experienced it in the post-World War II era when the Armed Forces began to formally desegregate its units. The Army found that sixty-two percent of the soldiers in white-only units said they would dislike the idea of serving with black soldiers. Yet within semi-integrated units, white soldiers who already served with black soldiers reported only 7% dissatisfaction with the arrangement. These findings helped convince the rest of the Armed Forces that desegregation would not, as some believed, be a horrifying experience for white soldiers.

Researchers have noticed the same phenomenon elsewhere. Michael Savelkoul and his team in the Netherlands found that non-Muslim Dutch people were more likely to regard Muslims positively if they lived near or worked with said Muslims. A Zogby poll from 2014 shows the same effect in the United States: 36 percent of those who said they knew a Muslim viewed Muslims and Islam favorably, as opposed to only 19 percent of those who did not know any Muslims.

What’s the lesson here? How do we mend the divides between the world’s faith traditions? I think it comes down to three steps.

1. Meet someone of a different religious or non-religious background.

2. Talk about something that inspires them.

3. Share the experience with those around you.

Easy, right? If you don’t know much about, or are slightly afraid of, Muslims or Baha’is or Mormons or non-theists or Deists or Sufis, the best way to figure them out is to talk to them. This is not rocket science, people. We do it all the time when the stakes aren’t high at all: asking the mail carrier about their day, chatting up the cute person for one reason or another, etc. We have a notion that it’s incredibly weird to talk about one’s religion or philosophy, but consider how many aspects of our lives are profoundly shaped by our deepest beliefs. In the religiously complicated world that we live in, the stakes can be immensely high; it behooves us to talk about our differences and similarities.

Aside from healing some of our planet’s ills, such dialogue can also be personally transformative. I have no idea where I would be on my faith journey if not for years of long, passionate discussions with adherents of religions not my own. My Muslim conversation partners have expanded my understanding of the place and importance of God. Hindu friends have helped explain cosmologically imperative notions of personal duty. Atheists have helped me sharpen my views on…basically everything faith-related (they ask a lot of questions). And Evangelical Christians wildly more conservative than I could ever hope to be have sounded suspiciously close to very liberal Christians when they show me the radical side(s) of Jesus, and how compassion can change the world. Countless other religious people have helped me articulate both what I believe and what I don’t believe.

If there’s one thing that the world’s faith traditions can agree upon, it’s that our faith journey is never really complete. There’s no end-point, just a constant work-in-progress; a slow, clumsy, plodding walk towards our ultimate visions. Learning about the beliefs of others helps us understand our own beliefs; we walk a little faster, a little straighter, a little more up-right. I plan to keep learning from others until we’re all running together in the same direction, arms locked, singing whatever praises we happen to sing, doing good deeds along the way. I imagine that it’ll look a lot like Better Together Day.

So get out there, cross a religious line, get to know a non-WhateverYouAre. Talk about the weather. Complain about the weather. Chat about the Chicago Cubs’ chances for a national championship, which could very well involve a discussion about whether there truly is a god. Share a pastry or five. Learn how to be better together. Talk to a human; build understanding, and combat ignorance.

*If Georgians truly don’t eat dessert, however, I might very well find it hard to trust them. Who doesn’t like dessert?